A common insult hurled around by many Christians, especially those of the emergent variety, is that conservative evangelicals tend to 'proof-text' in their rhetoric. Mr Conservative beef-boy laces his argument with numerous references, and draws rather direct lines between his position and 2 Opinion X:X, and the tattooed emergent replies with the exclamation: 'You are just proof-texting!'. I'm sure many of us have seen something like this at some stage.
Not unsurprisingly, conservatives throw their arms up in frustration. 'What do you mean, "proof-texting"? We are simply showing our position is scriptural!'
To be honest, I sometimes suspect not just a few in the emergent community don't really know what they mean either with their accusation, and fall back on this nugget when scriptures seem to oppose their view or support their debate partner. Or am I being too cynical?
"By proof-texting I mean the use of individual scripture texts to produce apparent support for a doctrinal position without adequate regard for the contexts of the individual texts which may indicate differences and nuances"
This is fair enough, but I want to suggest a definition that doesn't just emphasise the context of the text but also that of the reader. I propose that proof-texting is:
"the appropriation of scripture in the service of an argument that reads the text in terms of an inappropriate (even if scripturally laced) narrative or social discourse, in such a way that loses sight of this fact and thinks the scripture merely 'interprets itself'"
Of course, this implies that a text is thereby read in such a manner that loses sight also of its original context. But what makes proof-texting so difficult for many to see is that it is also about their assumed narrative or social discourse through which they read scripture. Many conservatives have a very scripturally sounding social discourse or narrative, with bible language abounding. So, when they read scripture, it is used to decorate this pre-given, this assumed narrative concerning the meaning of faith, Christ, and the church. This is done even though assumed their social discourse is profoundly unbiblical in its wider concerns and shape. The failure of much conservative evangelical rhetoric is not that they use scripture in their arguments, but that their assumed 'Christmas tree' upon which they often decoratively hang scripture, is in desperate need of reformation.
One conservative (whose sometimes ugly rhetoric is horribly and transparently guilty of proof-texting as I define it), frustrated by some emergent rhetoric, goes as far to claim that Jesus used the proof-texting method in his teaching! Of course, this misunderstands the point being made by intelligent emergent chaps, and the nature of Jesus handling of scripture.
This definition in mind, I would even claim that proof-texting is the most burdensome problem in conservative evangelical rhetoric.